Remember the old Heinz beans advert? Cassoulet is the signature dish of southwest France. It’s been around for a long time and the correct recipe is the subject of controversy. What is it? A stew of white haricot beans and different meats. They vary according to where you eat your cassoulet and include confit de canard (duck) or oie (goose), belly pork, mutton and Toulouse sausage.
Just when you think it’s gone for good, winter comes back and slaps you in the face. When the wind turns to the east here, you know it’s bad news. And since they had minus 71°C in Siberia this week, barbecues and skinny dipping are off the menu. So it’s good to know that help is at hand in the form of cassoulet.
This is rib-sticking stuff. It’s fine for when you’ve been shovelling snow, doing a 30 kilometre hike or guarding the sheep in the fields. It’s not quite so desirable during a heat wave. I once made the mistake of ordering cassoulet at a restaurant on a blisteringly hot day and managed only about a fifth of it.
The origins of the dish go back to the Middle Ages and possibly beyond. Three cities claim to be its birthplace – Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Toulouse.
Castelnaudary claims to have invented the dish during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), during a siege of the town by the English. To nourish the gallant defenders, everyone chucked what comestibles they had into a gigantic pot; hence the diverse nature of the ingredients. Suitably fortified, the folk of Castelnaudary drove back the invaders. Propaganda aside, there’s little firm evidence that cassoulet originated at that point. A cassoulet de Castelnaudary contains goose confit, pork and pork sausage.
Not to be outdone, Carcassonne and Toulouse also claim to be the originators of the dish. A cassoulet de Carcassonne contains mutton and sometimes partridge, while the Toulousain version includes confit de canard and Toulouse sausage. Slow-cooked beans form the basis of all three versions. Sometimes breadcrumbs are sprinkled over the top before it goes into the oven. The number of times you should break the resulting crust during cooking is a matter for heated debate amongst experts.
Although the dish has probably been around for some time, the controversy about its origins erupted only in the late 19th century. Someone published an article in 1890 claiming that the cassoulet de Castelnaudary was the only authentic version. Others say the Arabs brought the dish to France in the 17th century. The debate developed and people vehemently took sides.
Spanghero, the company currently vilified for its involvement in the Findus horsemeat scandal, actually started life as a producer of cassoulet, amongst other things. The family sold out a few years ago but the company kept the name whilst diversifying. There’s also a confrérie du Cassoulet, which exists to protect the tradition and quality of the dish. And, naturally, Castelnaudary hosts a fête du cassoulet every August.
I’ve also found a website devoted to cassoulet, which provides the recipe for the Castelnaudary version. If that seems a bit too much like hard work, here’s an easy version I got from BBC olive magazine. It has appeared on this blog before but there’s no harm in repeating a good thing – and it is rather tasty.
Toulouse Sausage Casserole
If you can’t find Toulouse sausage, any spicy sausage will do. I have adapted the original recipe to use haricots lingots, slightly longer and flatter than butter beans, already prepared in goose fat (don’t tell my doctor). Serves 4.
1 leek, sliced
1 fat clove garlic, sliced thinly
6 slices streaky bacon, chopped
6 spicy sausages or a coil of Toulouse sausage
1 large glass white or red wine
200ml chicken stock (but leave this out if you use the haricots lingots in goose fat, otherwise there will be too much liquid)
2 x 400g tins of butter beans (or haricots lingots, see above), drained and rinsed
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Fry leeks and garlic in butter until softened.
- Cut sausages into one inch chunks and brown in a frying pan. Do the same with the bacon. Add to the leeks and garlic.
- Add the wine, stock, butter beans – or haricots lingots – and cayenne pepper.
- Simmer gently for 10-15 minutes until piping hot. Season to taste and add chopped parsley, if liked.
Serve with plenty of green veg. Nothing else needed. Well, maybe a piece of cheese to follow.
I have to leave you with this YouTube link, which shows what happens to a British stallholder at Castelnaudary market who tries to sell cassoulet anglais. It was all a joke – but passions still run high.
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